The top five stories China’s censors blocked in 2012—and the sex tape they let through

December 14, 2012
December 14, 2012

In China, it was a year of suspense, scandal—and censorship. Thousands of websites and social media posts with reports unflattering to the Chinese government are blocked inside the country every year. We’ve picked these stories in part for their drama and how much the government wanted them out of the public eye, but also for what they showed about China this year.

1. A blind dissident escapes years of house arrest

In April, Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer and activist from eastern China, crept out of the home in which he and his family had been under intermittent house arrest for seven years. Eluding CCTV cameras and security guards, he scrambled over a wall, broke his foot, limped along for hours, and eventually hid in a pigsty until sympathizers could pick him up and drive him to Beijing. By seeking help at the US embassy, he prompted a diplomatic stand-off between the US and China. In the end he, his wife and two children were allowed to leave China under the premise of his going to New York University to study.

During the saga, Chen’s name was blocked from web searches in China. Still, as he was known for his work protesting forced abortions, Chen’s presence in Beijing galvanized Chinese activists, as well as petitioners attempting to file formal complaints against local authorities with the central government. Critics say that now he is in New York, he has been effectively neutralized.

2. The extraordinary wealth of Uncle Wen’s extended family

The New York Times reported in October that relatives of China’s Premier Wen Jiabao had made at least $2.7 billion in various business deals. The paper’s English- and Chinese-language sites, as well as searches for Wen, once nicknamed “the People’s Premier”, were quickly blocked (though Chinese bloggers found ingenious ways to get around the censors). The government said it would hold the paper “legally responsible” for the report but so far, no measures have been taken.

While the NYT report did not directly implicate Wen himself, it supports the long-held belief that the relatives and friends of China’s elites profit massively from their connections. Bribe-taking, auctioning of party posts, and taking kickbacks in exchange for approval on business projects is almost expected behavior, and Chinese state media regularly report on corruption convictions as a way for the party to look like it is doing something about the problem. But investigations rarely ever reach the top.

3. The extraordinary wealth of Xi Jinping’s extended family

In July, China’s incoming leader, Xi Jinping, was the subject of a lengthy Bloomberg investigation that alleged his relatives had amassed millions of dollars in assets during Xi’s rise to the top. The story did not trace any of the money back to Xi or his wife or daughter, but it dented his reputation. He has spoken often about his disdain for cronyism, and had built up an image of being committed to clean government. After the report, Bloomberg reporters were followed and the wife of one said they had received death threats. Bloomberg’s news site is still blocked in China, according to greatfirewallofchina.org.

Some analysts say the reports on Xi and Wen, as well as other corruption scandals, have put pressure on the new leadership unveiled in November to really crack down on corruption (as the past two leaders pledged to do) or face total loss of the public’s faith in the Communist Party.

4. A fatal Ferrari crash tips the balance

At 4am one March morning, a black Ferrari crashed on a snow-slicked road in Beijing, killing one man and critically injuring two women—one of whom later died. All three were in various states of undress, sparking rumors that they were playing some sort of high-speed sex game. The driver was the 23-year-old son of Ling Jihua, a Chinese official and aide to President Hu Jintao, who was being primed to take a position on the powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).

Ling and Hu engineered a massive cover up of the incident, complete with a fake post from Ling’s son to prove he was alive, in hopes of hiding the accident from the Chinese public and also the party elites who choose the next leaders. The story couldn’t be contained and instead hastened Hu’s decline and influence. Thus, the new PSC, China’s decision-making body, is dominated by those in former president Jiang Zemin’s princeling faction of elites, rather than Hu’s—a political tilt that analysts say will make the direction and pace of economic and political reforms more conservative.

5. The undoing of Bo Xilai, China’s “greatest gangster”

The fall of the former party secretary of the fast-growing western Chinese city of Chongqing was the biggest scandal to rock the elite ranks of the party since the end of the Cultural Revolution, and had all the elements of a James Bond thriller. Bo Xilai was the darling of Jiang’s faction and allegedly set to take a seat on the PSC when details emerged that he tried to cover up of the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who was later alleged to have ties to British intelligence. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was convicted of killing Heywood by lacing his drink with cyanide.

Bo’s former police chief, who told US consular officials about the cover-up while trying (unsuccessfully) to defect, called Bo China’s “greatest gangster.” The party charged Bo with covering up the murder, pilfering more than $100 millon from the government and, for good measure, keeping a hundred mistresses. Bo was expelled from the party and still awaits trial. His wife was given a suspended death sentence, effectively life in prison.

The Bo scandal revealed cracks in the picture of unity the party tries so hard to project. Some officials wanted to protect Bo but others who disapproved of his flamboyance and alpha-male style saw an opportunity. Articles and web searches for Bo and the names of anyone involved were blocked on and off—the result of factional fighting over what to do about Bo, observers said. Censorship on the scandal was permanently lifted once the party expelled him.

And that sex tape

In November, another Chongqing official was felled, this time by a grainy sex tape shot in a hotel. Lei Zhengfu, a paunchy 54-year-old party official, was filmed atop an 18-year-old woman. In order to win contracts for public projects, a construction company had begun bribing Lei with women in 2007 and taped at least one of the encounters. Bo Xilai, then the city’s party boss, helped engineer a cover-up after the company attempted to blackmail Lei in 2009.  An investigative Chinese reporter who likens himself to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, managed to get the tape from the police and published it.

Again, in an attempt to show the party cracking down on corruption, Chinese censors did not block the video—which attracted millions of viewers and arch comments about Lei’s looks and sexual performance—or stories about five other officials brought down over the next six days in separate cases.

But the effect is that corruption of officials seems both rampant and ridiculous. One police official made mistresses of two sisters. (They were not twins, Chinese state media were keen to point out.) An official in Shandong hand-wrote and signed a contract to leave his wife for his mistress by Dec. 20; it was leaked online. Another official in Shaanxi was found out to be juggling four wives (link in Chinese).

Uneven and mostly ineffective Chinese censorship in 2012 hasn’t had quite the effect planners hoped for. They can only hope that 2013 will be better.

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